Morris Graves

Spring with Machine Age Noise No. 1

1957

Artist
Morris Graves 1910–2001
Medium
Tempera and ink on paper
Dimensions
Support: 673 x 1368 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Sir Robert Adeane through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962
Reference
T00520

Not on display

Summary

Spring with Machine Age Noise No 1 is a tempera and ink painting on Chinese paper by the American artist Morris Graves. Presented in landscape format, the composition is mostly rendered in a limited palette of beige, brown and green, with highlights of orange and blue. Across the top of the uniformly beige background, a line of loose swirls of orange paint, overlaid with brown, form cloud-like shapes, which become increasingly triangular at their base and tighter in form as they progress across the scene. These are connected by a solid blue line that runs through them. Below this, thick, diagonal lines in brown, orange and blue traverse the central part of the image, introducing a sense of movement. Behind these are a series of lines that curve around multiple points and a row of orange sun-like shapes form a sequence, resembling barbed wire. The bottom of the image is dominated by a patch of green grass and other vegetation. The repeated propeller-like points of motion and sequences of blurred shaped suggest the noise associated with mechanical movement in the heart of an otherwise quiet natural landscape.

Spring with Machine Age Noise No 1 was painted by Graves in 1957. It is among the first in a series of similar works all made that same year by Graves (see also Spring with Machine Age Noise No 3 1957, collection of Nancy Lassalle, New York; reproduced in Kass 1983, p.132). The artist had returned to his home in Woodway, Seattle, late in 1956 following a two-year period in the remote Irish countryside. He was upset to discover that the previously peaceful landscape was now regularly disrupted by the noise of construction work and of jet planes flying overhead. This was his motivation to paint a series of pictures in which the natural landscape was set in contrast to the disturbing vibrations of mechanical noise that now shattered the peacefulness of the scene. As Graves stated in 1959:

since the beginning of man’s history he has lived in nature with only an infinitesimal amount of his own discordance marring the scene, but suddenly in our time man has been able to change these proportions grotesquely … There is a strip at the bottom of some of the paintings with a little indication of the movement of a spring, but the rest of the painting is given over to the noise – discordance – nature violated – aggressive machine noise.
(Quoted in Kass 1983, p.65.)

In the same statement Graves described making the series in ‘a state of anguish and grinding of teeth and defeat’, and said that the paintings were based on ‘notations’ made in response to the noises he heard, which he drew onto sheets of Chinese paper laid out on the floor. (Quoted in Alley 1981, pp.333–4.)

A childhood dominated by sickness meant that Graves’s early life was somewhat solitary and he had spent periods of convalescence tending and designing gardens, an experience that perhaps accounts for his lifelong closeness to nature. He began painting during his early teenage years. Following a strict Protestant upbringing in Seattle, Graves undertook three trips to the Far East in 1928–30 and was attracted to the spiritual and philosophical attitudes and beliefs that he found there. His friend Dorothy Schumacher introduced him to Zen Buddhism in 1935 and his interest was further nurtured through friendships with the composer John Cage, the artist Mark Tobey and the novelist Nancy Wilson Ross. Following a period in New York (1937–41) Graves was called to serve in the Second World War, but registered as a conscientious objector. He was incarcerated then forced into military service before being released in March 1943, when he returned to the natural landscape of the Pacific Coast and to painting. A visit to Japan in 1954 was followed by a trip to Ireland where he settled in Creag, Baltimore, in County Cork. It was here that he embarked on the Masked Bird paintings and other new series such as Hibernation, Irish Fauna and Hedgerow – emblematic of his experience of his new natural environment (see, for instance, Hibernation 1954, Sara Roby Foundation Collection, New York; reproduced in Kass 1983, p.132). On his return to America and in his later work Graves continued to explore themes of the natural word and spirituality (see, for example, Bird Experiencing Light 1969, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle; reproduced in Kass 1983, p.137).

Further reading
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.333–4, reproduced p.333.
Ray Kass (ed.), Morris Graves: Vision of the Inner Eye, exhibition catalogue, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC 1983.
Morris Graves: Falcon of the Inner Eye: A Centennial Celebration, exhibition catalogue, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York 2010.

Beth Williamson
January 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Catalogue entry

Morris Graves born 1910

T00520 Spring with Machine Age Noise No. 1 1957

Inscribed 'Graves 57' b.r.
Sumi ink and tempera on paper, 26 1/2 x 53 7/8 (67. 5 x 137)
Presented by Sir Robert Adeane through the American Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962
Prov: Sir Robert Adeane, London (purchased from the artist through the Willard Gallery)
Exh: Graves, Willard Gallery, New York, December 1959 (works not listed, repr.)
Lit: John Cage, The Drawings of Morris Graves (New York 1974), pp.128 and 130
Repr: The Friends of the Tate Gallery Annual Report 1961-62 (London 1962), between pp.12 and 13

On returning to his forest home at Woodway near Seattle at the end of 1956 after two years in a remote part of Ireland, Graves was distressed to find that the peacefulness of the scene was now disturbed by the roar of jet aeroplanes passing overhead; and this prompted him to paint a series of pictures like this one in which the pastoral freshness of nature was contrasted with the shattering vibrations of 'machine age noise'. This work was one of the first of the series.

'The noise paintings were spat out', he wrote. 'They were painted in a state of anguish and grinding of teeth and defeat. They were painted as I fled from my stronghold in Woodway. I am not a nomad loving continuous change of scene. A private walled garden with the sounds of nature means much to me - it is my major nourishment from the outside world and regardless of how others may see it I was driven out of Woodway by machine noise -

'As I was angrily giving up I spread a few sheets of Chinese paper on the floor to make some notations about "noise" for myself. Notations to which I would add the essential contemplation before I could communicate this kind of outcry against the noise to others. As I fled my chief thought was: I will retreat and paint something about the outrageous machine-age noise when I am not angry.

'The idea in the paintings was that since the beginning of man's history he has lived in nature with only an infinitesimal amount of his own discordance marring the scene but suddenly in our time man has been able to change these proportions grotesquely and tragically. There is a strip at the bottom of some of the paintings with a little indication of the movement of spring but the rest of the painting is given over to noise - discordance - nature violated - aggressive machine noise.' (This passage is taken from a letter written from Dublin in October 1959 and published in the catalogue of his exhibition at the Willard Gallery).

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.333-4, reproduced p.333

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